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Sherlock – Writer/co-creator Steven Moffat on bringing a legend to the 21st Century

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Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC
Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC

When the updated and ultra-modern version of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, premiered on the BBC two weeks ago, it received a whopping 30 share. Its success has been invoked in the House of Commons as a reason to leave the BBC and its license fee untouched.

Not that anybody should be surprised, as the total re-imagination of the cult classic has been devised by one of Britain’s most lauded writers, Steven Moffat, along with Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen). Moffat is also the writer of the new Doctor Who, starring Matt Smith.

We spoke with Steven Moffat at the TV Critics Association in Los Angeles.


How much pressure was there not to screw this up?

Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC
Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC

We were absolutely convinced that this was the right thing to do, to update Sherlock, because we’re huge, huge fans of Sherlock Holmes. We’re fan boys. We’re true zealots. And we absolutely believed that updating it would work.

The only thing greater than our belief that we were right was our surprise at discovering we were right when the show was transmitted on the BBC, which has just been an absolute storm, a sensation. We sort of expected people to object. We had a big book of excuses why Mark and Steven were right, and also handsome, but we didn’t have to work from it at all; people have accepted it.

When you started conceiving this, did you know Robert Downey Jr’s feature film was going to come out, and what are your thoughts about that?

We sort of vaguely knew, but we were pretty confident that we had our own furrow to plow or that we were doing our own thing, doing the updated version. As Benedict [Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes] has said, ‘There have been 230 of them. You’re never going to be the only one.’ Just make sure you’re a damn good one!

A lot of people saw the movie. Do you think, in any way, it made your life easier because it was a late-Victorian Holmes. It was also an action movie that seemed more anachronistic in some ways than this does.

Sherlock Season 1 - Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC
Sherlock Season 1 - Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC

I’m very honest, I don’t know how much of a difference it made either way. It didn’t hurt us. Had it been a terrible film and people hated it, then I think that would have affected us. How much energy did it give us? Well, I suppose it re-associated Sherlock Holmes to something fun, but to be honest, Sherlock Holmes is already pretty famous. I think we exist in different bubbles. I don’t think it hurt us, but I don’t think it necessarily helped us.

In the original incarnation, what makes Holmes so special is that he’s just smarter than the average policeman. He finds minutia that allows him to solve crimes. In the 21st Century setting, there’s so much technology. How do you make him special in this context?

The same way he’s special in the books. He’s cutting edge in the books, and although he makes a big deal in the books of collecting minutia, it wasn’t that. It’s the things that he notices and that no one else does, that no computer will ever either. The best one is in Silver Blaze, the little conversation where the police inspector asks if there’s anything he should be paying attention to. It is an ability to notice what is not there than the ordinary [person] – [that] a brilliant human being can do.

So what is the essence of Holmes that makes him Sherlock Holmes, no matter what era you place him in?

Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC
Sherlock Season 1 - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC

I think he is absolutely distinct. You have to take him as what he really is, a jewel. It’s a partnership. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson [played by Martin Freeman] are not only of equal stature, in the original series Watson is arguably the main character. He’s the one who’s telling the story. It’s all happening to him.

You take this cold, remarkable, difficult, dangerous, borderline-psychopath man, and you wonder what might have happened to him had he not met his best friend, a friend that no one would have put him with, this solid, dependable, brave, big-hearted war hero.

I think people fall in love, not with Sherlock Holmes or with Dr Watson, but with their friendship. I think it is the most famous friendship in fiction, without a doubt. It is a moving and affecting one, and best of all, it’s a great portrait in the original stories of a male friendship, by which I mean it is never discussed at all. They never mention it. They never have one moment of articulated affection. Neither have we. Why should we? We don’t do it. We’re men. We have no emotions!

So the story of Sherlock Holmes, on the surface, is about detection, but in reality, it’s about the best of two men who save each other, a lost, washed-up war hero [coming back from Afghanistan], and a man who could end up committing murders instead of solving them. They become this perfect unit. They become the best friendship ever, and they become heroes.

Do you see similarities between Holmes and Doctor Who?

Steven Moffat as lead writer on Doctor Who, with a Dalek © BBC
Steven Moffat as lead writer on Doctor Who, with a Dalek © BBC

Both wildly successful television series [he laughs]. It’s a funny thing because some of the press has said it’s a little bit like Doctor Who. Actually, that’s not right. Our Sherlock Holmes is an awful lot like [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the books’ author].

When they were first working on Doctor Who in the early Sixties – I remember it well – they actually consciously patterned some of the doctor’s characteristics after Sherlock Holmes.

The truth is, having obviously written both of them rather a lot, they’re almost opposites. I kind of think of the Doctor as being a lot more human in a strange way because the doctor is like an angel who aspires to humanity. And Sherlock Holmes is like a human being who aspires to being a god. So all the things that the Doctor values, the tiny frailties of falling in love or the romance or the heroism that he rushes towards and tries to understand and be a part of, Sherlock Holmes is trying to reject and walk away from.

Neither of them succeed in that, which is the story of their lives, but they’re going in opposite directions. They both have got huge egos. They’d have a tremendous fist fight if they were in the same room!